June 29, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has found strong evidence for an ocean of water beneath the frozen crust of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, scientists said June 28.
The finding propels Titan into a short list of places including Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s smaller moon Enceladus suspected of harboring underground seas.
“The evidence is strong that Titan is squishy,” said planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, with Cornell University.
The evidence was put together during six passes over Titan by Cassini, which is orbitting Saturn, between 2004 and 2011. During the flybys, scientists measured minute changes in the pitch of radio signals passing between the spacecraft and Earth to figure how much Saturn’s gravity deformed the moon.
They then turned to computer models to match a 10-meter (33-foot) distortion with possible scenarios to explain what was going on. The more solid the moon’s interior, the less it would be impacted by Saturn’s gravity.
“The measurement is pretty conclusive about the existence of an internal ocean,” said lead researcher Luciano Iess, with Sapienza University in Rome, Italy.
“The presence of water does not imply life,” he added. “But Titan has many interesting ingredients - hydrocarbons, a hydrological cycle and a thick atmosphere.”
Scientists have no idea if the ocean is in contact with rock, a possible source of minerals and other components believed to be needed for life.